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Lebanon's electoral carve-up: Hariri and allies are blocking reform

Proportional representation would be a small step towards fairer representation, but some parties fear losing power as a result

With Lebanese elections set to take place in May, the customary tug-of-war has started over exactly how those elections are to take place. Democracy in Lebanon is all about foreplay.

President Aoun's proposal for proportional voting would lead to fairer representation and reduce opportunities for vote buying 

For months on end, the country’s political elite engages in courtesy visits and tete-a-tetes behind closed doors to determine the rules of the electoral game. Once agreed, the “moment supreme” at the ballot box is but a formality, as 90 percent of the outcome can be predicted.

A Tom and Jerry cartoon doing the rounds on social media illustrates the current hustle and bustle in Lebanon’s political circles. It shows the famous cat and mouse accompanied by their bulky bulldog neighbour sitting around a juicy steak.

Taking turns, the characters suggest how to best divide it. Naturally, each one wants the biggest chunk for himself and what was supposed to be a cosy dinner ends up in a massive brawl.

Whoever posted the cartoon replaced the heads of Tom, Jerry and the dog with the faces of Gebran Bassil, Mohamed Raad and Saad Hariri's cousin, Ahmed Hariri.

Dividing the steak

For those not familiar with Lebanese political theatre, Bassil is Christian, minister of foreign affairs and son-in-law of President Michel Aoun; Raad is Shia and has been a Hezbollah MP since 1992; Saad Hariri is Sunni, current prime minister and son of the slain former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

All of Lebanon’s Christian factions support the proposal, which in itself is no small feat. It is almost a matter of principle for Lebanese Christians to not agree on anything

The “steak” on the table is the electoral law proposed by President Aoun and his Free Patriotic Party. It suggests dividing Lebanon into some 15 electoral districts that will be decided by proportional representation rather than winner takes all.

Proportional representation has its benefits. In many of Lebanon’s electoral districts, it is a thin line between winning and losing. Sometimes, a few hundred votes make the difference between all or nothing, which swings the door wide open for vote buying.

Being awarded the number of seats relative to the proportion of the vote would lead to fairer representation and a greater variety in parliament. In addition, it would be much harder to influence the elections through vote buying.

All of Lebanon’s Christian factions support the proposal, which in itself is no small feat. It is almost a matter of principle for Lebanese Christians to not agree on anything. The proposal, furthermore, has the backing of Amal and Hezbollah, the country’s main Shia parties.

Aoun celebrates his win in October 2016 (AFP)
Surprisingly, the latter prompted Makram Rabah to argue here that Hezbollah is the one and only culprit frustrating the proper functioning of Lebanon’s democracy.

According to him, Hezbollah stands to lose seats under the new law. It only supports it to weaken “traditional parties and their leaders” and, ultimately, “to make the Lebanese state implode”.

Unconvincing claim

Rabah’s reasoning is not very convincing. For one, we are left wondering what “traditional parties and leaders” Hezbollah seeks to undermine, given the fact that all the main Christian and Shia factions support the initiative. And why would Hezbollah want Lebanon to implode?

Hariri and Jumblatt have made their calculations and concluded they are likely to lose seats under the new regime

Rabah’s pinpointing Lebanon’s Party of God arguably tells us more about his own political preferences. The two factions that vehemently oppose Aoun’s proposal, and thus currently obstruct the proper functioning of Lebanon’s democracy, are Saad Hariri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

Their reasons for doing so are understandable enough. Like every other Lebanese politician and party, including Hezbollah, they have made their calculations and concluded they are likely to lose seats under the new regime.

Take Hariri, whose Future Party went down from 36 seats in 2005 to 26 in 2009, and which stands to lose even more under Aoun’s proposal, especially in the north of the country. Through the overwhelming presence of Sunni voters in Tripoli and surroundings, Hariri was able to dominate the nominations for nearly all seats.

Saad Hariri takes a selfie after leaving a polling station during municipal elections on 8 May 2016 in Beirut (AFP)
In a system of proportional representation, that would no longer be the case. Traditional Christian leaders will be able to win their fair share without the support and blessing of Hariri. Yet, even among Sunnis, Hariri is not guaranteed to win. 

In 2009, North Lebanon had 28 seats up for grabs, 11 of which were reserved for Sunnis. Hariri is unlikely to even win all of them, as his popularity and political and financial clout have waned considerably in recent years.

In the predominantly Sunni city of Tripoli, he will face stiff competition from local political leaders, his former lieutenant Ashraf Rifi and a core of Islamist parties. Some believe Hariri may gain as few as seven seats in the north, while his total number of parliamentary seats may be halved.

Hariri has warned that as long as Hezbollah is armed, no fair elections based on proportional representation are feasible. Their guns could force voters away from the ballot box.

Rabah repeated the argument. Yet Hezbollah is hardly present in Tripoli and the north, which does not even have one Shia seat on offer. Likewise, there are only three Sunni seats on offer in the south, Lebanon’s Shia heartland.

Drastic changes required

Meanwhile, Hariri and Jumblatt are negotiating to either stick to the electoral law that governed the 2009 elections or adopt a “hybrid” electoral law. Most Lebanese politicians, however, detest the last electoral law, which is the main reason no elections have taken place since 2009.

It is clear that a hybrid law is a thinly veiled attempt to engineer in detail the electoral outcome. It would also make Lebanon the laughing stock among law schools the world over

A hybrid law would see Lebanon split up into dozens of tiny districts that are decided by winner-takes-all and a handful of large districts decided by proportional representation.

It is clear that such a law is a thinly veiled attempt to engineer in detail the electoral outcome. It would also make Lebanon the laughing stock among lawyers and law schools the world over. 

The coming months will see if Hariri and Jumblatt will be able to negotiate a compromise or receive some sort of sweetener deal to help swallow their pride. If not, I think, proportional representation is a small step towards fairer representation.

If the Lebanese are truly interested in establishing a modern democracy, however, more drastic changes are required.

Ultimately, they will have to abolish the archaic and rigid confessional system first installed by the French, which attributes a fixed number of seats to every sect. Ultimately, they will have to accept the basic fact that it is not religion that makes a man.

- Peter Speetjens is a Dutch journalist who lived in Lebanon for 20 years, regularly travels to India and has a special interest in how 19th-century writers helped shape our conceptions of the world today.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: After Michel Aoun is elected Lebanese president in October 2016, people take to the streets in Jdeideh, on the northern outskirts of Beirut (AFP)

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